True Thomas - Parallel Themes and Resonances

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
John Waterhouse

In addition to the Ballad and the 'Prophecies' of True Thomas, there is a body of Scottish fairy lore associated with Thomas. His coming and goings from the Otherworld feature in many tales such as this one->.

Whether these stem from the Ballad, or are a parallel development with the Ballad, is difficult to establish. Just as it is difficult to be certain whether either or both of these came from the tale which opens the 'Prophecies' or whether all stem from a common earlier source.

What is likely is that Thomas became a magnet for the folklore of the Otherworld, attracting stories to himself whose themes are also expressed elsewhere. He became a typological figure of the Otherworld journeyer, moving backwards and forwards across the borders of the two worlds.

In the first branch of Y Mabinogi Pwyll moves across that border and returns with the title 'Pen Annwn' , and by being an Otherworld ruler as well as a ruler of Dyfed,  his visitation from the Horse Goddess legitimates his rule. For Thomas the benefits are otherwise. But the idea of gaining insight, poetic or prophetic knowledge, or sovereign legitimacy is all bundled into this meme of the Otherworld's influence on human affairs. The application of such memes might vary across political, theological and cultural spheres as well as in different historical periods. Like much of the fabric of medieval life which was taken up in later periods, this tale became part of the ideology of poetic Romanticism when John Keats adopted the persona of Thomas as a thrall to the Muse. His own situation as a consumptive poet with little prospect of a long life, or of being able to pursue the woman he was attracted to, also determined a tragic context for his version. So here Thomas becomes a doomed and lovelorn Romantic poet in medieval guise, as depicted by John Waterhouse's painting based on Keat's poem, both of which express a barely supressed sexuality and resonances of guilt, elements included in one episode of the 'Prophecies'; but also a lost sovereignty, a chance not realised, a beguiling by an Otherworld that remains unattainable. Is that the quintessential modern expression of this meme?

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
John Keats

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

  Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has wither’d from the lake,

  And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
  So haggard and so woe-begone?

The squirrel’s granary is full,

  And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow

  With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose

  Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,

  Full beautiful—a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,
  And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,

  And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;

She look’d at me as she did love,

  And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,

  And nothing else saw all day long,

For sidelong would she bend, and sing

  A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
  And honey wild, and manna dew,

And sure in language strange she said—

  “I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot,

  And there she wept, and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes

  With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,

  And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dream’d
  On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried—“La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

  With horrid warning gaped wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

  On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
  Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,

  And no birds sing.

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